Community Activist fuels development in northwest Milwaukee
By Rob Gebelhoff and Joe Kvartunas
Stephanie Harling leaned forward as she sat across Dan Woodring’s desk, rapidly discussing ways the Waukee Engineering Co. could engage in community development.
“We need to sustain this community,” Harling said. Keeping close eye contact, she handed Woodring her business card.
Woodring, who serves as the company's product and quality control agent, expressed his willingness to work with Harling. “If this is better for the community, it’s better for our business,” Woodring said.
Harling, 46, serves as executive director for the Havenwoods Economic Development Corp., a position she has held for 11 years. The development corp. is a nonprofit organization that organizes Havenwoods neighborhoods in northwestern Milwaukee known for their crime and poverty.
Harling works with residents and local businesses to improve its neighborhoods, such as Kaul Avenue and Westlawn, a $100 million housing project on Havenwoods’ southern edge.
“I love Milwaukee,” Harling said. “I’m a life-long resident, so I want all of the city to thrive. I just love seeing people have opportunities in front of them.”
Stephanie Harling cited her mother, Mary Jo Morris, as inspiration. Morris advocated for Milwaukee public education until her death in 2007.
“That’s where I get my civic passion — by being dragged to school board meetings as a seven year old,” Harling said, laughing.
Harling found her career in economic development by accident. A Bay View resident, Harling received her bachelor’s degree in corporate communications at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1991.
After college, Harling worked in sales and marketing for broadcast companies but wanted to pursue a master’s degree in elementary education. Instead, Harling found herself working for a nonprofit development group temporarily, sparking a passion for community improvement.
Harling said the most difficult challenge in improving Havenwoods was changing perceptions of the northwest neighborhoods.
“When I told peers that I was working in community development, they made references to ‘Gunshot Alley’ and ‘good luck,’” Harling said. “They were referring to what they thought was a challenging, hopeless community. What we’ve discovered is that it couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Police Captain Jerome O’Leary, who spent the last seven years in Havenwoods with the Fourth Police District, noticed a major shift in the community.
“If you look at what the neighborhoods used to be and what they are now, they’ve really changed,” O’Leary said. “If it weren’t for Stephanie and for her group, it would not have changed.”
Harling organized her group’s initiatives into three categories: crime prevention and community organizing, economic development and healthy neighborhoods. Community leaders have noticed differences in the community as a result of these initiatives.
“I love to see kids riding bikes in the spring and summertime,” O’Leary said. “I smile when I think of all the work that we’ve collectively done. I’m very appreciative of Stephanie for all the efforts she and her group put into those neighborhoods.”
Stephanie developed a relationship with the Fourth District through her organization by involving police in community activities. For example, Harling’s group guaranteed a police presence at landlord compact meetings. O’Leary said this made a significant difference in his job.
“You need people like Stephanie to build trust among the residents … by talking with people and also by showing that she has a strong relationship with the police,” O’Leary said.
Members in the business community who have not engaged with the organization have also noticed Harling’s efforts. Prior to meeting with Harling, Woodring acknowledged the group’s efforts to beautify the area.
“The new ‘Havenwoods’ signage and the little things around the area makes the community great,” Woodring said. “It shows that things are improving, that people care.”
Harling sees a lot of room for improvement in Havenwoods. In the next five years, she would like to see Silver Spring Drive’s retail revitalized, more social engagement and more resident leadership.
While there is a lot of work to be done, Harling has “fallen in love” with the Havenwoods people.
“We have good-working, salt-of-earth people in this community,” Harling said. “And that’s the message we would like to get out.”